World Expo 2010 is the largest entertainment event in human history. Over 230 countries and organizations are attempting to introduce themselves to about 5 percent of the Chinese population, and in the process are spending an unbelievable amount of money.
So far more than 70 million people have visited, at a rate of 350,000 to 600,000 a day. Normally, this would be a logistics nightmare, but not here.
The Chinese government has built a supporting infrastructure that boggles the mind: roads, subway lines, a tunnel under the Huangpu River, boat docks, bus terminals, plus hundreds of rest rooms, water fountains, rest areas, smoking areas, food kiosks, complex entry gates with airport-type security devices, ticket counters, reservation stations, fire stations and maintenance facilities.
In advance of the Expo they have restricted commercial production to reduce Shanghai's air pollution. The sky is blue for the first time in the eight years that I have been coming here and one no longer sees the citizens wearing protective face masks on the street.
The planning and management seem to have left no detail, however small, overlooked. Thousands of maintenance people look after every pavilion and the areas around it and the rest rooms are spotless even at eight o'clock at night.
Buses run continuously and the pedestrian signage is excellent. The various pavilions are obviously operating under a strict set of rules, and all are uniform in crowd handling, with overkill of staff personnel. There are one million college age volunteers, who signed up for two weeks' duty, scattered all over the place to answer questions and give directions, not including the thousands of Chinese young people hired to man the pavilions.
The queues average three to five hours, with Saudi Arabia requiring up to eight hours (its attraction is the world's largest IMAX theater screen). These are unimaginable waits for a Westerner, but the Chinese psyche seems to be able to handle it just fine.
I was able to set foot in an unbelievable 145 country pavilions, plus five theme pavilions and one corporate pavilion in five, day-long visits. The reason I could do this is because almost all pavilions have a rule that allows persons over 75 years of age to go to the front of the queue and enter immediately.
The most impressive elements of Expo 2010 were not the displays, but the pavilion buildings themselves, the imaginative architecture and the construction. With the exception of the major exhibits (and many of these were poor) there was very little to get excited about. There were tons of photos, TV screens, and wall projections. There were far too many shops selling statues, carvings and trinkets.
The theme of Expo 2010 is "Better City, Better Life." Developing nations talk about a better life for their people who move from the countryside to the cities. This is particularly relevant to China, and more particularly to Shanghai.
The secondary theme, not formally announced, and resulting from international hoopla, has to do with saving the environment, being "green," and all like that.
Some truly followed that, such as Great Britain, whose pavilion was made of seeds imbedded in 60,000 fiberglass rods, and supposedly to be planted at the end of Expo. Some others paid lip service by mentioning what they were doing to save the planet.
The two most obvious observations were: first, that the visitors took millions of photographs of practically everything inside and outside of the pavilions including themselves; and second, (and most disturbing to the sponsoring countries, I am sure), was the literal stampede of the visitors to the desk that stamped their special Expo passports and their hasty departure immediately thereafter.
I hardly saw anyone reading the descriptive narratives that attended so many of the artifacts, photos and displayed materials.